Japanese Tea Ceremony
Traveling around Japan can sometimes be a fast paced whirlwind experience, with tight travel schedules designed to see as much of Japan as possible within a short window of time. One way to step back, slow down and enjoy the culture and history of Japan is partake in a traditional Japanese tea ceremony. The first recorded history of tea in Japan dates back to the year 815 when the Emperor of the day was served unground green tea by a buddhist monk who had recently returned from China. The following year, the Emperor ordered the establishment of tea plantations across what is the Kansai region today. Throughout history in Japan, the preparation of green tea has been undertaken for health and enjoyment, but also as part of Buddhist rituals. Its popularity has fluctuated throughout time but traditional tea ceremony is still practiced today and largely reflects the practice common in the late 1500’s.
Following a long history and development, influenced by politics and religion over thousands of year, today the Japanese tea ceremony centres on powdered green tea, or matcha, being prepared and served to participants by the host as part of an informal gathering known as chakai, or a more formal tea event referred to as chaji. In the less formal gathering of chakai, the tea served is thinner and is accompanied by some Japanese sweets whilst the formal chaji includes a multi course kaiseki meal, followed by sweets and both thick and thin green tea.
Tea ceremony are often held in traditional tatami floored rooms, but they can also be held outdoors or in other locations. The traditional tatami floored room used to host tea ceremonies is traditionally only 4.5 tatami mats in size, and features a hearth for the fire and pot in the centre of the floor, a small inset alcove for the display of decorative scrolls and flower arrangements and also a separate preparation area for the host. In the most traditional of tea rooms, there is also a separate entrance for the host and the guests. The aesthetic of the tea ceremony room is deliberately understated and reflects the significance of the ceremony in Japanese culture.
There are many steps to follow as part of the chaji, with some minor differences in timing between different tea rooms, but essentially the process of the ceremony is as follows. Guests will gather at the venue and wait until they have all arrived before the host of the tea ceremony will greet them with a silent bow, to signify the start of the ceremony. From here, guests will then wash their hands and mouths a part of a purification process before removing their footwear and crawling through a low door into the tea room. Guests then have sometime to appreciate the art in the alcove before taking their seat on the floor. Guests will seat themselves in order of seniority, with the most senior member sitting furtherest from the entrance and the most junior closest to the door. Once all are seated, the guests will close the sliding door loudly enough for the host to be aware they are ready for the for the ceremony proceed. The host will then enter and formally greet each the guests. A fire is then lit in the hearth in the centre of the room which will be used to boil the pot of water for the ceremony. Guests are then served a multi course kaiseki meal and sweets. At this point, green tea still has not been served. A break is often held in the middle of the ceremony to allow the host again prepare the room and adorn the room with a flower arrangement. Guests are then called back into the tea room after again washing their hands and mouths for purification. The host will then clean each of the utensils in front of the guests, following a set routine. It is at this point, the thick tea is made by adding matcha to a bowl, adding the correct ratio of hot water, and whisking with a brush, to aerate the tea. Once prepared, the host will offer the first few sips of the tea to the most senior guest. The first guest will then receive the bowl and turn it around so as to not drink from the front of the bowl. After taking the tea, the first guest will then wipe the rim of the bowl with a special cloth, before passing the bowl to the next guest who then repeats the same actions until all participants have enjoyed the thick green tea.
The fire in the room is then reignited and is a sign to the guests that the formal portion of the ceremony has concluded and the more casual aspect will commence. The casual part of the ceremony allows for conversation between the host and guests as the host then prepares individual bowls of thin tea for all. More sweets will be offered to offset the slight bitterness of the green tea. The host will then clean all utensils again in front of the guests and let them examine the tools used to prepare the tea, answering any questions about each item throughout. Once the utensils have been collected, the ceremony has almost concluded and guests will farewell the host with a bow from the doorway. Some chaji can last up to four hours as each step of the process is conducted grace and precision which has been refined over hundreds of years.
Even if you do not have the time to part take in a full formal tea ceremony, many venues such as Camellia and Ami Kyoto offer the much more informal chakai, where tea is still served and shared in a beautiful space and is a reflection of the long history of tea appreciation and its impact on Japanese culture to this day.
Maiko dinner or Maiko performance
Japanese cooking class
Many people like Japanese cuisine but not so many do not know how to make Japanese dishes. Some people may have tried making sushi roll at home or at one off cooking class event but maybe you are not sure if you have understood how to make sushi rice properly by using right ingredients such as rice vinegar and by using appropriate amount of water to steam rice. At Cooking Sun we teach a variety of Japanese dishes from sushi, tempura to many home dishes which you probably have never heard of.
Ramen is famous all over the world as a hearty dish that satisfies the hunger of students and busy salarymen. Whilst most people may be familiar with instant ramen in a cup that you remove the lid from and add boiling water to, this style of instant ramen does not compare to the depth of flavour and satisfaction of a fresh bowl of ramen eaten in a local Kyoto restaurant. Take some time to look a little bit closer at ramen in Kyoto and enjoy these highly crafted and satisfying meals in a bowl.
Ramen is said to be based on a Chinese soup and noodle dish with some toppings that became popular in Japan in the early 1900’s and was adapted for local tastes to become the Japanese dish we know today. Current day ramen usually consists of three main parts, the noodles, the soup and the toppings. While each often vary from store to store in terms of flavours or ingredients, these three components are what make ramen, ramen.
The noodles in ramen are made from wheat flour, salt, water and varying ratios of alkaline mineral water (kansui). It is the amount of kansui that changes the texture of the noodles and allows them to be served in the soup without becoming soft or falling apart. The soup is often made from boiling pork or chicken bones, dried fish, mushrooms, onions and other ingredients to develop a deep flavour that is often unique to each store, and differing regions in Japan. The amount of meat and collagen in the cooking process of the soup results in a thick, rich broth that coats the noodles. The soup broth can then be flavoured with the most common choices being soy sauce, salt or miso.
The crowning glory of ramen is the wide variety of toppings that are available to complete the dish. From perfectly boiled seasoned eggs with runny yolks, to fresh green onions, bean shoots or dried seaweed, the most hearty topping for ramen would have to be slices or barbecued or roasted pork (chashu). With each venue promoting their ‘Special Ramen’ or ‘House Ramen’, trying the special ramen on offer in a restaurant is often the best way to taste the features of the local method and style of ramen with the chef’s selection of broth to match the toppings.
When traveling around Kyoto or Japan, look out for signs that say ラーメン (Ramen) and take a look inside and try one of the chef’s recommended dishes. This is the easiest way to become acquainted with authentic ramen if it is your first time. If, however, you are feeling more adventurous, or see something that you like on the menu, be sure to try it as you will not be disappointed! A common side dish served in ramen restaurants are pan fried dumplings (gyoza) or fried rice (chahan or yakimeshi). The combination of ramen and gyoza/ fried rice is common set available and is an affordable choice that can be enjoyed for lunch or dinner.
An unmistakeable sound that you will surely hear inside of a ramen restaurant is the sound of diners loudly slurping their noodles through their teeth as they eat. Whilst it may seem a little strange at first, there is a reason behind the sounds. As ramen is served steaming hot to you, and you undeniably want to eat it straight way, slurping the noodles through your teeth allows the noodles and soup to cool down just enough so as to not burn your mouth. Give this technique a try when you are eating ramen in Japan as it has the added effect of letting the chef know that you are enjoying his meal.
Finally, here are some of the local favorite ramen restaurants.
Eat kaiseki dinner
Saihoji, or more commonly known as Kokedera (苔寺) which translates to ‘Moss Temple’ is special place to visit because admission requires advanced booking. The advantage here of being well prepared is that when you do have the chance to visit, is that you will just about have this UNESCO world heritage site to yourself. The colloquial name of Kokedera derives from the 120 species of moss that are present in the grounds of the temple. The gardens provide an interesting backdrop to the buildings as the appear as a green carpet covering just about every surface. Another advantage of organising to visit here in advance is that you will be able to participate in the two Buddhist practices of chanting and tracing scripture.
Upon entering the grounds of the temple, you will pay the entry fee and then collect your papers to be used for tracing. You will then be taken to a room with low desks where a monk will commence chanting and you are able to join in. Following the chanting session, you can then participate in the tracing of Japanese text using a brush and ink. These activities last for around an hour, and once you have completed your tracing, you leave your work at the altar. Following the chanting and tracing, you can then walk through the gardens and appreciate the simple beauty that has been created by the wide coverage of moss.
You must make a booking to visit Kokedera well in advance. Entrance is not permitted without a reservation. To make a booking from outside of Japan, you must send your request by post to the temple, including your name, address and the number of people and your intended date of visiting. Also required is a return self addressed and paid post card. The temple will confirm your reservation by returning the postcard you have provided, so be sure to bring this with you on the day of attendance. It is necessary that your request is received at least 7 days before your proposed visit, but to ensure availability, it is better to do this even further in advance.
The address is:
56 Jingatani-cho, Matsuo
Nishikyo-ku, Kyoto, 615-8286, Japan
It costs 3000 yen per person to enter the temple, and this is paid upon arrival. Getting to the temple is not too difficult by taking the Hankyu Kyoto line to Katsura station. At Katsura you will need to transfer trains to the Hankyu Arashiyama line. To access Kokedera, you will need to get off at Matsuo Taisha Station, and then make the 20 minute walk to the gates of Kokedera.
Enjoy beautiful Japanese garden
The style and peace of traditional Japanese gardens are appreciated all over the world. Kyoto is home to some of the most breathtaking gardens in Japan where you can enjoy the tranquility and beauty of such a unique style of garden design.
While the style of Japanese gardens have changed a little over time and to suit their local purpose, there are several common themes that can be appreciated. Most garden designs are influenced by the natural landscape surrounding the garden. Mountains and high volcanic peaks are represented by large rocks, while rivers, seas and clouds are represented by small pebbles. The designs are intended to mimic the natural environment and rely heavily on naturally occurring materials. This does not mean that the garden is separate from the surrounding architecture or buildings. In fact, a fundamental principle of Japanese garden design is that there is to be a flow from the garden into the building and the view of the garden is to be framed from within any neighbouring structures.
As you visit temples, shrines or homes around Kyoto and Japan, you will notice that the garden features prominently in the overall design. Large verandas overlooking the gardens provide places for quiet contemplation, whilst gardens are perfectly framed and composed to be appreciated while sitting inside rooms. Some gardens may be very simple, but they will never appear stark. Other gardens will feature layers of trees and varying textures of foliage, but will never feel overcrowded. The key to successful Japanese garden design is the balance of the design that allows for the viewer to use their imagination to contemplate the meaning or to simply enjoy the beauty of the space.
You are spoilt for choice when visiting Kyoto for the sheer number of Japanese gardens which can be enjoyed and appreciated in all seasons. Whilst spring and the blooming of the cherry blossoms is famed as a time to enjoy gardens in Japan, autumn provides a striking change of colour to the leaves on the trees that creates a stunning backdrop to soak up. In summer, the vibrancy of the lush green garden can be enjoyed for its beauty and also its cooling atmosphere while in winter, the gardens with a light covering of snow on bare branches provides a striking spectacle.
It is difficult to avoid viewing a Japanese garden when visiting Kyoto and any of the shrines or temples, but an excellent place to enjoy many aspects of Japanese garden design is with a visit to Nanzen-ji temple and neighbouring sub temples. Nanzenji is set on sprawling grounds and expansive gardens that provide a changing backdrop for this imposing structure as the seasons change. The complex around Nanzen-ji features zen Japanese rock gardens, pond garden and leafy gardens. During autumn evenings, the gardens of Nanzen-ji and surrounding smaller temples are illuminated at night providing the opportunity to walk the grounds and enjoy the autumnal colours in a new way.
Getting to Nanzen-ji is easy with the number 5 city bus stopping right near the complex or you can take the Tozai subway line and get off at Keage station which is only a 7 or 8 minute walk away.
Enjoy fantastic tempura course dinner
Ippodo tea shop
Along with sushi, cherry blossoms, sake and kimono, one of the most identifiable cultural exports from Japan is green tea. At Ippodo in central Kyoto, you can experience and purchase a large array of high quality local tea products including leaf tea and powdered tea (matcha). A hint of the atmosphere awaiting inside is revealed upon approaching the store which is located in a traditional style Kyoto store. Enter the store and you will be greeted by the atmosphere of a time gone by and the smell of freshly made tea. The service provided by the staff here is second to none and they will be able to answer any question you may have on the tea products that they carry. This store is not only popular with tourists looking to sample tea or purchase some to take home, it is renowned with local practitioners of Japanese tea ceremony as a honey pot of high quality local Japanese green tea products.
Onsite is a cafe where you can enjoy some of the tea that is sold in store ready to drink and take away, while samples of other items in the range are also available for you to try. There is also a tearoom located here where you can prepare your own tea before enjoying it in store and trying the accompanying Japanese sweets. Whether you are stopping by to purchase some tea for yourself or as a gift for someone back home, visiting Ippodo is an excellent opportunity to see up close aspect of culture that is embraced by so many people in Japan.
The store is located on the Teramachi shopping street and is easily accessed on foot from central Kyoto, or by taking the Karasuma subway line to Marutamachi Station, which is a 10 minute walk away, or the Tozai line to Kyoto-Shiyokusho-mae Station, which is only a 5 minute walk away or alternatively to the Keihan line to Sanjo Station on the other side of the Kamo river, but still only a 10 minute walk away. The store is open from 9am to 6pm daily.
The Bamboo Forest in Arashiyama
Located on the western outskirts of Kyoto city is the area of Arashiyama. Arashiyama is the location of the most popular natural sightseeing spots in the area, the Bamboo Forest. Situated at the foothills of the mountains that surround Kyoto, Arashiyama sits on the banks of the Katsura river. This is a great place to visit any time of year, but the most popular would be during Cherry Blossom Season in April and then for the Autumn Colours from late October to November. There are several options for getting to this area. You can take the Hankyu line from central Kyoto to Katsura and change for the Arashiyama line or you can alight at Omiya or Saiin Station to transfer to the single car Keifuku Arashiyama line which rumbles through the back streets of Kyoto to Arashiyama. Alternatively, there is the JR Sagano line from JR Kyoto station. All lines will bring you to the central shopping and restaurant village of Arashiyama which can be immediately enjoyed on arrival. The Hankyu line from Katsura will however terminate on the southern side of the river. However, don’t be concerned about this as the Togetsukyo Bridge (Moon Crossing Bridge) that crosses the Katsura river is a landmark of the area and the perfect place to enjoy views of the river, the township and surrounding mountains.
From any of these locations it is only a short distance to the Bamboo Forest on the western side of town. It is easily accessed on foot from any of the train stations, or a fun way to get around is by renting a bike! You can rent a bike easily from any of the train stations and it will give you a unique perspective of getting around using one of the most common modes of transport in Japan.
Visiting the Bamboo Forest is a great way to walk amongst the natural material that has been used in Japan for thousands of years in construction and for arts and crafts. Today, many items are still manufactured using bamboo due to its strength and rapid growth rates. Entry to the forest is free, and you upon entering, you will immediately notice a drop in temperature. The shade and lighting that the tall clumps of bamboo provide create a magical atmosphere that is a stark contrast to the otherwise harsh urban environment that is seen in many other places in Japan. Take time here to walk through the paths in the forest and watching the light shimmer through down to the ground. If there is a breeze the bamboo creates a calming rustling sound that can be appreciated from a quiet corner in the forest.
Once you have relaxed and enjoyed the natural greenery in the forest, there are several other activities to do in Aarashiyama. You can dine at one of the many local restaurants that cater for visitors, shop for souvenirs or locally made crafts, or you can take some time to visit Tenryu-ji temple which features a fantastic traditional Japanese garden which you can explore at your own pace. If you still have more time to spend in the area and are looking for a fun activity to do outdoors, there are boats for hire on the Katsura next to the Togetsukyo Bridge. The boats for hire are in an area of the river that doesn’t run too rapidly so it is a fun and relaxing way to enjoy the view of the surrounding mountains and historical bridge.
Whether you are visiting Arashiyama with the intention to only see the Bamboo forest, don’t be surprised by what you can find by exploring a little further of the main paths. Perhaps take a stroll down a quiet side street and see what you can find? You can appreciate the architecture and style of the well preserved private traditional machiya (town houses) and gardens along with being gifted with plenty of opportunities to find a peaceful spot along the river to enjoy what is a very naturally beautiful spot.
Kyoto is home to some of the best food in Japan. Developed from it’s from it’s ancient history as the former capital and its landlocked location, Kyoto has it’s own unique style of cuisine that is revered around the world. One of the best places to get to see, smell, touch and most importantly taste some of these offerings is by undertaking a tour of the Nishiki Market in central Kyoto. Running parallel one block north from Shijo Street between Hankyu Kawaramachi and Karasuma subway stations, Nishiki Market is easily accessible on food form the centre of the city. Regardless of whether you area chef, a home cook, or someone who just likes to eat, visiting Nishiki is a great opportunity to experience the hustle and bustle of this working market and try local food that you might not have ever seen or tasted before.
With its origins as far back as 1310 with the first fish shop opening in this area, today Nishiki Market is home to over 100 stalls and restaurants selling some of the best local vegetables, fruit, meat, and produce that Kyoto has to offer. The atmosphere inside the narrow strip that forms the market is lively and welcoming to tourists. Whilst many stores cater their offerings to local restaurants and businesses, most stores dually cater for visitors with plenty of free tastings and opportunities to speak with the store owners about their products. Several stalls also have ready to eat food available to purchase and eat within the market. Take care here to follow the directions of the staff and only eat in the areas designated by the store holders.
An interesting thing about the stalls at Nishiki is that most tend to focus their range on a particular product. From stores selling solely different types of local pickles, sesame seeds, miso, tofu, tea or rice each store owner has expert knowledge in the origins of their goods. You can buy just about any seasonally fresh or preserved ingredient used in Japanese cooking at Nishiki. From the biggest, sweetest and juiciest peaches in summer to various dried fish and mushrooms for making dashi stock at home all year round, the range is varied and always interesting!
Visiting Nishiki market is a great activity to do at any time of year or season, but it is a particularly good thing to do if you find yourself in Kyoto on a rainy day. With the market covered with a coloured glass roof, it means shopping and exploring can be done in any weather. Conveniently located nearby Teramachi and Shin-Kyogoku shopping streets, where you can buy a variety of clothes and other goods, it means that you will not be lost for an interesting and rewarding activity regardless of the conditions outside.
Sanjo dori shopping street
Nakamura Tokichi in Uji
Origami is the traditional Japanese craft of paper folding that has been practiced for centuries. The artful purpose of origami is to create a sculpture from a square sheet of paper that has not been cut, glued or marked in any way. The skill of the craft comes from achieving the results through only making folds to the paper.
Sculptures produced by origami can take many forms. From single sheet designs such as the famous paper crane or more intricate designs of modular origami where individual folded sheets are then joined together to make a much larger piece. Any paper can be used to make origami, so long as it is capable of folding the crease after you have folded it. By far one of the most enjoyable ways to practice origami is by using some authentic origami paper which has been purchased from a specialist paper or stationery retailer. The paper traditionally used for origami is known as washi and and is made from wood fibres, however, there are many different styles of paper designed for use in origami from coloured squares, patterned designs to foiled backed paper.
There is a widely known legend in Japan that if someone folds 1000 individual paper cranes then they shall be granted a wish of eternal good luck. This legend has become more widely known outside of Japan through the story of a young girl named Sadako Sasaki. Sadako was young girl when she was exposed to radiation following the atomic bomb drop on Hiroshima in World War 2. She became ill with leukaemia and at the age of 12 began folding paper cranes in order to have her wish granted. The official story notes that she completed the 1000 cranes but continued to fold them after her wish did not come true until she eventually succumbed to her illness. Other versions of this story say that she completed 644 with the remainder completed by her classmates. Many people still continue to individually fold 1000 paper cranes as a memorial to the deaths of people during World War 2 with the hope of their wishes being granted through the continuation of this ancient paper craft.
If you come across a store selling locally made origami paper in Kyoto, pick some up as it makes an excellent souvenir that can be used in many different applications and will provide an interesting and long lasting memory of your visit to Japan. Many books are sold in stores which give descriptions on to make various sculptures and there are also internet video tutorials available so you can put your new paper to use.
Fushimi Inari Taisha is one of the most iconic sights in Kyoto. Instantly identifiable from its thousands of red tori gates places around the mountain side, Fushimi Inari is an excellent spot to again appreciate Japanese architecture but also get some exercise by walking on the mountain side under the estimated 10,000 of gates. Established in 711AD, Fushimi Inari Taisha has been a place where people have come to pray for their harvests, prosperity and the health of their families for hundreds of years. These days it is a very popular spot in Kyoto for visitors to explore the mystical grounds and find a quiet corner to enjoy the mountain views and long stone paths under the arches of the tori gates.
One of the most common questions about Fushimi Inari Taisha is, ‘Why are there so many red arches?’. The particular style of arch, or tori gate, in general represent the passing of prayers from people to the gods. So it is said that each time you walk under a tori gate that your prayer is then passed to the gods. This theory is more or less multiplied at Fushimi Inari Taisha with the presence of so many gates. If you walk the full course you will see around 100,000 tori gates of varying sizes and ages. Each of them however have the same purpose, and that is to pass prayers to the gods.
Another common question about the gates is, ‘Why are they red?’. You will notice that the tori gates are painted a bright red/orange colour as it is generally said to ward off evil forces, however, at Fushimi Inari it is also said to be a colour that represents the good harvests that come from the god present at the shrine. The material used to paint the gates is made from red earth and mercury. These chemicals also have the added benefit of helping to preserve the timber used in the construction of the gates.
You will also notice that there are carvings in Japanese kanji on most of the tori gates. These carvings represent the names of companies and individuals who have donated money to the shrine and in turn have purchased one of the gates. The sponsorship of the shrine in this way ensure upkeep is maintained and that fallen or broken gates can be repaired and replaced. The lowest priced gates start at around 400,000yen and prices can go over 1million yen for larger gates.
Hiking the entire course can take anywhere between 2 and three 3 hours, depending on your energy levels and how crowded the paths are. If you decide you do not want to complete the full course, there are maps located all around the grounds which show you various paths to take back down the mountain to the entrance. Walking the full course is a rewarding and satisfying experience and the higher places on the trail certainly offer smaller crowds and places for peaceful contemplation.
Access is easy by either taking the JR Nara line from JR Kyoto station and getting off at Inari Station or by taking the Keihan line and getting off at Fushimi Inari Station. Entry is free and the shrine is one of the few places open all hours, so if you do visit Fushimi Inari Taisha after dark, you will likely see many locals using the mountainous course as their regular exercise spot.
Sake tasting in Fushimi
For those who enjoy Japanese sake, the area of Fushimi Sake Brewing District on the southern side of Kyoto city is not only a beautiful place to explore on foot, but is also an excellent location to explore the process of sake making and enjoy samples of local producers along the way. Established in this area due to the abundance of clean soft water flowing from the underground springs from the Horikawa River and demand from the local community in Kyoto, the Fushimi Sake Brewing District is still home to around 40 sake breweries. Many of the breweries maintain the traditional appearance of raw timber and white walls on the exterior, so strolling this area provides an opportunity to step back in time and imagine what life would have been like hundreds of years ago.
Several of the breweries are open to the public and house museums, tastings and stores. Breweries and museums who offer tastings and information welcome visitors by displaying their signs out the front inviting you inside. One of the largest facilities to visit is Gekkeikan. Here, you can view the tools and exhibits used to produced sake and have the unique process of sake brewing explained. There is also a shop where you can purchase locally produced bottle sake or enjoy tasting their sake before deciding which bottle to purchase. Here, you will also have the chance to try some of the naturally flowing spring water which is used in sake production. It costs 300 yen to enter and is a great opportunity to get unclose and understand the traditional processes of making sake. Also in the area is a store called Fushimi- yumehyakusyu which offers a range of sake for purchase, but also a number of other goods that have used sake as an ingredient. For example, they sell sponge cake made with sake and also locally made buns. A visit to this store shows the diverse uses of sake as an ingredient in cooking and baking.
If you have some extra time after visiting the breweries in the area and would still like to explore more, you should take the chance to enjoy a cruise on a flat bottomed wooden boat along the nearby Uji river. As sake production developed in the area around Fushimi, the area also developed into an inland river port where wooden boats were used to transport goods. These days, the wooden vessels are no longer used for cargo, but they are run as scenic and calming experience for visitors. Tours along the river take about 40-50 minutes and cost 1000yen per person.
Getting to the area is easy from central Kyoto. Take either the Keihan line and arrive at Tanbabashi or take the Kintetsu Kyoto line and get off at Momoyama-goryo-mae station. Both stations are very near to each other and if you continue south from either, you will soon find yourself in the sake brewing district. There can be a small charge of a few hundred yen to enter some museums or for tastings, but this varies depending on the venue.
Starbucks in Heian Shrine
Starbucks in Sanjo Ohashi
Kawadoko in Kibune
Traveling around Japan you may notice that dining outdoors is not as common as it is in Europe, the US or Australia. While the reasons for this in Japan may be rooted in the lack of space and highly changeable seasonal weather, there is a distinctly Kyoto tradition which occurs every summer known as kawadoko where you can enjoy dining on delicious traditional Japanese food, outdoors. Every summer, temporary wooden decks, which are the foundation for tatami floored restaurants are constructed over the Kibune River which flows in down the mountains on the northern side of Kyoto city. Summer in Japan, particularly Kyoto, is known for its stifling heat and humidity, however, the cool waters of the Kibune River offer relief from the oppressive heat as it flows under the restaurant structures and acts as natural air conditioning. Furthermore, dining in the shade of towering trees of the forest creates an unforgettable experience unlike anything else you may have encountered.
During the kawadoko season in Kibune which runs from May to September, around 20 restaurants construct platforms over the river to house their dining rooms. Several of the restaurants have permanent structures along the narrow mountain road which runs through the village but expand their operations during the peak summer season. There are many dining options along this stretch of river, most of all feature multi course Japanese lunch or dinner sets, and drinks. Prices can vary depending on the establishment you choose, and bookings may be necessary at peak times. A common dish served at the restaurants are locally caught river fish, which are grilled and served directly to guests. Other dishes are local seasonal vegetables, cold tofu and rice. Once you have enjoyed your lunch or dinner, you can even take the chance to sit on the edge of the restaurant deck and cool your feet in the clean waters of the river running below. Whether you choose to visit for lunch, or dinner, the dining atmosphere of kawadoko is as enjoyable as it is unique.
Getting to Kibune from Kyoto city is easy, and the journey itself is beautiful at all times of the year. You need to take the Eizan Electric Railway to Kibune-guchi Station from Demachiyanagi Station. Demachiyanagi station itself can be reached on the Keihan Line through Kyoto, or by bus. The Eizan Electric Railway takes you up into the picturesque northern mountains of Kyoto and the rail journey itself is worthwhile in any season. From Kibune-guchi station it is about a 20-30 minute walk along the river until you find yourself in the centre the village and surrounded by restaurants. You can either choose to walk from the station, take a taxi or wait for the bus. As the temperature can be 10 degrees cooler in the mountains during summer, the walk is pleasant and will allow you to appreciate the beauty of the town and surrounding mountains.
A day trip to Obubu tea farm
If you are visiting Kyoto, are interested in green tea, or would just like to get out of town for the day, a visit to the Obubu Tea Farm is an excellent way to get up close look at the cultivation and production of green tea in Japan. Located not too far from Kyoto and Nara cities, is the town of Wazuka which is hope to the Obubu Tea Farm. The tea produced in this area is known as Ujicha, named after the nearby town of Uji. The land and hills around Kyoto are famous across Japan and the world for producing some of the highest qualities tea in the world. Take some time to get off the well beaten tourist path and visit this picturesque region.
On a guided tour of the Obubu Tea Farm, you can enjoy a tour and the scenery of the beautiful tea fields, learn about the cultivation process of tea, sample a variety of locally grown teas and enjoy lunch at a local restaurant. The tour is conducted in English and lasts for 4 and a half hours. There really is not better way to get an up close look at how tea is produced in Japan and have any question you may have answered about the process by touring an independent company’s tea fields and speaking to those involved in the process at a fundamental level.
Bookings for the tour of the tea farm is open to individuals and also to groups, and bookings can be made online, with detailed instructions on how to reach the farm available on their website.
Japanese knife shopping
As a land of craftspeople and fine food, it makes sense that Japan produces arguably the best quality knives and cookware in the world. Current techniques for the production of Japanese kitchen knives stem from the history of the blacksmiths who produced samurai swords. After the carrying of samurai swords was banned in Japan following the Meiji Restoration, blacksmiths turned their skill to producing high quality knives that could be used in kitchens or the production of other goods such as tobacco. Few countries take knives as seriously as Japan so visiting provides a great opportunity to pick up a locally made knife to add to your collection! These days, Japanese kitchen knives are recognised for their toughness and their ability to maintain their sharp edge due to the high grades of steel used in production.
It may be difficult to know where to start looking when you first step into a knife shop in Japan. The variety of knives available can be exciting or overwhelming, depending on what information you have available. There can be some noticeable differences between Japanese and Western knives, whilst some of the other differences can be more subtle.
The first thing you will notice as a different between Japanese and Western style knives are the handles. Japanese knives tend to be made from unsealed wood, which is designed this way to maintain grip when wet. The handles are often longer and bulkier than Western style knives, whilst at the same time, they tend to be lighter. The blades themselves also tend to be thinner and consequently lighter, which alters the balance of the knife in your hand. The other major difference between Japanese and Western style knives is that the blades of Japanese knives are only sharpened on one side while most Western blades are bevelled and sharpened on both sides. This means it is necessary to choose the appropriate knife if you are either left or right handed! It is said that sharpening the blade only to one side produces a cleaner cut through your ingredients so this is why such excellent results are achieved with cutting sashimi when using a Japanese blade.
Japanese knives do hold their edge much longer than Western style knives. This means that they need to be sharpened far less often. The feel of a Japanese knife in your hand is quite different to that of a Western knife, but the results which can be achieved and the craftsmanship of construction is unparalleled.
Different styles of knives are intended for different cutting purposes, and you will surely find a knife that is high quality and which suits your needs. A santoku style knife is a great multipurpose knife that can be used for slicing and dicing vegetables, but is also capable of cleanly slicing through meats. It has a broad blade with a more rounded tip and comes in varying lengths, but is most commonly between 16-18cm. A gyoto style knife is also a good multipurpose chef knife that has a more pointed tip when compared to the santoku. The gyuto is a much longer style blade and ranges from around 21-28cm in length. Other specialist knives are also available such as the yanagiba style blade which is long and thin and perfectly slides through sashimi without tearing or pulling on the fish. Blade lengths are generally longer and range from about 27-33cm.
Many specialist knife stores and department stores have a large range of Japanese made knives available for you to buy. Some manufacturers also produce a hybrid Japanese/ Western style knife that has the Japanese style blade attached to a more familiar Western style handle. Whichever knife is your preference, be sure to visit a knife store in Japan and see how it feels in your hand before buying it. Think about what you will most likely use the knife for, and speak to the shop staff who will have specialist knowledge in their craft and which knife is best suited to your needs.
Zen lesson in Shunkoin
Ginkakuji (Silver Pavillion)
A visit to Ginkaku-ji or the ‘Silver Pavilion’ is another one of Kyoto’s sites that is well worth visiting to enjoy the beauty of the building itself and the surrounding gardens. Located in the eastern mountains of the city, Ginkaku-ji is a Zen temple that dates back to the site as far back as 1482 where it was built as a retirement villa for a local shogun, Ashikaga Yoshimasa, before being converted to a Zen temple a short time after his death in 1490. The design of the main structure was to resemble that of the Gold Pavilion or, Kinkaku-ji which had been commissioned by Yoshimasa’s grandfather. The intention was to cover the structure with silver foil, however, this plan was never realised and results in the structure that is known today.
These days, a visit to the Silver Pavilion includes walking a path through the gardens that take you to various points, each of which, give you a different perspective of Silver Pavilion. An impressive feature of the grounds at Ginkaku-ji is the sand garden where you will notice a large sand cone has been shaped in the middle of the garden. The sand cone is known as the ‘Moon Viewing Platform’ and its presence is another interesting focal point of this beautiful Japanese garden. It is said that the cone of sand has been designed to resemble Mt Fuji, but perhaps the interpretation of it’s existence and meaning is left for the viewer to determine.
Accessing the Silver Pavilion is easy, with city bus numbers 5, 17 or 100 and an admission fee of only 500 yen. Due to its overwhelming popularity, it is better to visit the Silver Pavilion earlier in the day or late in the afternoon to ensure you avoid the larger crowds and so you can also enjoy the beauty of the gardens.
Eat matcha ice cream at Gion Tsujiri
Feel wild monkeys at Arashiyama Monkey Park
Jogging or cycling along Kamogawa river
One of the most noticeable landmarks in a gridded city like Kyoto is the Kamo River or Kamogawa (鴨川). The river is the main body of water that runs through Kyoto city and prefecture and takes its name from the wild ducks that call it home with ‘kamo’ translating to duck while ‘gawa’ translates to river. It is recorded that the course of the river has been altered throughout time due to the location of Kyoto as the capital of Japan. It is written that the river would have geographically divided the capital so the course was altered in order to maintain unity of the city. Today, what we can see is one of the most easily accessible green, public open spaces in all of the Kyoto.
While the course of the river has been altered hundreds of years ago, unlike many other rivers in major cities in Japan, the banks of the Kamo do maintain a more natural feel with green riverbanks, a vast array of trees that can be enjoyed by anyone in the city. Another feature of the riverbank are the cycling/running/walking paths that run the length of the river. These paths provide the perfect opportunity to take in Kyoto from a different perspective and escape some of the crowds that you may find in the central city area. You will come across people commuting to and from work/school/home, locals walking their dogs, practicing musical instruments or others just taking some time out to enjoy the peace and quiet that the river offers. There are plenty of places along the course to stop, rest and sit under a tree and enjoy the view of people passing by. If you enjoy jogging, you can join the other joggers who use the path morning and night who make their way up and down both sides of the river. It is easy to rent a bicycle from many stores across the city, so why not take the opportunity to hire a bike for a few hours (or longer) and enjoy the many spots along the Kamo River?
You can rent a bicycle from as little as 700yen per day from bicycle shops located all over town. For this price you will get a single geared bicycle that you can use to move easily around town, along the Kamo River bike paths and to many more places than you would be able to visit on foot or by using the city bus. For around 1500yen per day, you can rent an electric assist bicycle that makes going up hills and traveling long distances a breeze! The added advantage of using a rental bicycle to get around is that you will get to enjoy the fresh air, move around like a local does and also enjoy the city from a much more enjoyable perspective than from a bus window. Kyoto is often rated as one of the most bicycle friendly cities in the world, and upon riding here, it is easy to see why. There are clearly marked bike lanes on roads and paths, drivers are respectful and patient and the path along the Kamo River is one of the main arteries for cyclists and pedestrians in the city.
When you visit Kyoto, you will not miss the presence of the Kamo River in the city. So, if you have a moment, make sure that you take some time to experience it and enjoy what it offers to locals and visitors alike.
Eat dinner at Michelin star restaurant
Yamazaki Whisky Distillery
Japan is renowned for its locally produced whisky which comes out of the Suntory Yamazaki Distillery, located just outside of Kyoto. If you are interested in drinking world class whisky or just learning about the process of how it is produced, be sure to visit the Suntory Yamazaki Distillery during your trip to Japan. Be sure to check which tour you are interested in and book early on the website. Last minute places due to cancellations may become available, but it is best to secure your place on a tour in advance to avoid missing out.
The town of Yamazaki is located a short train ride on the JR line from Kyoto. The manicured grounds of the distillery are an even shorter stroll from the station. Upon arrival at the gates, you will sign in at the front building for your chosen tour and are handed an audio guide and a lanyard with your group number. Participation in the Yamazaki Whisky Distillery Tour costs ¥1000.
From here, you will make your way to the meeting point inside the whisky museum. The museum is set inside a large building over two levels. Here you will find a magnificent display of the bottles and whisky produced out of Yamazaki over the years. You can get an introduction to the history of the company and learn about some of the awards these uniquely Japanese whiskies have received. Your tour will commence precisely at the allocated time where you will gather for an introduction of the whisky making process by the tour leader. Tours are conducted in Japanese, but you can easily follow by using the audio guide throughout.
You will then be led through the production areas of the factory where you can witness the machinery used to produce the whisky. Upon entering the still room you will notice both the warmth and the smell generated from the whisky being made. It will be explained how the various shapes the stills ultimately affect the taste of the end product. Following this, you will then get to experience the most impressive part of the tour which is viewing of the barrel warehouse. Here, there are thousands of oak barrels are kept containing whisky produced at Yamazaki while it matures. You can spend some time in this space taking photos and looking for the oldest barrels you can find!
At this point the tour of the production area ends and you will then be taken back for your whisky tasting! You will be given four tastes of whisky and will learn about the flavours and tasting notes of each. A tutorial is then provided on how to drink Yamazaki whisky in different ways. You can follow the suggestion of the tour leader or you can chose to enjoy it any way you please with soda water, bottled water and ice freely on hand. Complementing the whisky tasting are some locally made snacks which pair exceptionally well with the flavour of the Yamzaki whisky.
Once you have enjoyed the tasting and learned a little more about the process of whisky production, the tour will then conclude. If you have some extra time and would like to enjoy some more tasting, be sure to go back to the museum to the Whisky Library on the ground floor. The library features a selection of paid tastings of Yamazaki Whisky and other whiskies from around the world. It is a good idea to take this opportunity to try some rare drops that may be difficult to find (or too expensive) elsewhere.
Whether you partake in viewing the Whisky Museum at your own pace or joining one of the paid tours, a few hours spent at Yamazaki is an excellent way to grow a deeper appreciation of the skill and quality of whisky produced just outside of Kyoto.
Overnight in ryokan
Staying in a traditional Japanese Inn or ‘ryokan’ is a unique experience and is likely to be different to any accomodation you have experienced before. Ryokan have existed in Japan for over 2000 years, with the oldest continually operating inn opening in 705 AD. Originally established as lodging points along ancient highways and mountain roads, today, ryokan provide a place local Japanese and visitors to find some peace and quiet in a very traditional atmosphere. Whilst many ryokan have been lost through the years due to the expansion of Japanese cities and their replacement by modern hotels, there are still thousands of ryokan that continue to operate across the country. They range in size from a few rooms to much larger in scale, but most evoke a sense of peace and restfulness that is vastly different to even the highest end western style hotels.
The lobby and entrance to Ryokan are not dissimilar to western style accomodation, except for the the need to remove your shoes upon entering. There is often a large communal lounge area (with coin operated massage chairs) or gift shops where people can relax, chat and enjoy their surroundings. Rooms vary depending on the venue and price point, but traditional style rooms feature tatami mat flooring, sliding doors from the entrance into the main room and an enclosed veranda or porch from which you can enjoy the view. Again, depending on the particular ryokan, your room may or may not have its own private bathroom. Traditionally, toilet and bathroom facilities were shared with other guests of the same gender, however, many these days offer rooms with ensuite bathrooms. Many ryokan have been established in areas with hot springs so is likely that there will be a communal bath that is fed by local hot spring water. Higher end establishments will offer private hot spring baths, perhaps even in your room, but this all depends on the location.
In your room, you will find a robe (yukata) that you can wear throughout the hotel. You can wear the yukata while relaxing in your room or the lounge, reading a book or while eating dinner or playing a game of table tennis! As many ryokan were located along highways and were used as stopping points for travellers, in earlier days, they were located away from other services like shops and restaurants. As such, the culture developed to include the service of dinner and breakfast as part of the cost of the room. Dinner can sometimes be served privately in your room and consists of multiple dishes prepared from local seasonal ingredients, known as ‘kaiseki’. Enjoying a night in a ryokan is an excellent way to experience the local dishes that have been carefully prepared and served to guests. If dinner is not served in your room, there will be a large dining room where you can enjoy your meal and excellent service of your hosts. Be sure to arrive for dinner at your agreed time to ensure that you enjoy the food in the way and at the temperature as intended by the chef.
While you are enjoying your dinner, staff will likely be in your room making your bed (futon) for the night. When you arrive in your room during the day, you will find a low table and chairs with some supplies for making tea in the centre of your room. After you return from dinner, the table will have been moved aside and your futon will have been made, providing a comfortable place to rest after enjoying the hot springs, meal and charm of the ryokan you have selected.
After waking the next morning, you can then enjoy breakfast which is usually served in the dining room at your agreed time. Again, breakfast is made up of multiple small local dishes. A traditional Japanese breakfast served in a ryokan can be challenging for some, but many ryokan that host international guests will also offer western style dishes at breakfast time. After breakfast it will be time to depart the ryokan and look back on a remarkable experience that should be experienced at least once when visiting Japan.
Discover what’s so hot about tofu
Pickled vegetables have been eaten for centuries in Japan. Kyoto is famous for it’s pickles which are known as tsukemono. From it’s time as the ancient landlocked capital of Japan, the people of Kyoto had to find a way to preserve vegetables to sustain them through the cold snowy winters and to satisfy the royalty. As a result of this need and desire to have delicious and healthy food on hand, pickling as a way of preserving took off as the most common method.
If you have been lucky enough to have eaten a meal in Japan it is very likely that you will have been served some small side dish of pickled vegetable. Pickles form an integral part of most Japanese meals as a way to garnish, complement, cleanse your palate or aid in digestion. They provide a contrast in colour, texture and flavour that would surely be missed if absent from a Japanese meal. The most common vegetables used in pickles across Japan are white radish, turnips, cucumbers, plums, carrots, and cabbage. An essential ingredient in preparing pickles is salt. Most pickles in Japan are prepared using salt, but can be done in other methods such as rice bran, sake lees, soy sauce or vinegar.
Local to Kyoto pickles are Shibazuke, which is a mixture of cucumber, eggplant and red shiso leaves and ginger which are pickled in a plum vinegar. The Shibazuke have a bright purple colour which is attained from the red shiso leaves and they are as distinctive as they are versatile. Senmaizuke are turnips which have been pickled with vinegar, dried kelp (konbu) and pepper while Saikyozuke is sliced cod which has been pickled in miso before being grilled and served. These three are just examples of local pickles that originated in Kyoto. Even today, local pickle makers are coming up with new ideas to pickle different ingredients and using different methods in order to come up with new and interesting combinations and to use seasonal ingredients in unique ways.
If you are interested in trying some of the array of pickled made locally in Japan, be sure to visit Nishiki Market where you can visit one of the several pickle stalls and try the locally made pickles. Choose your favourite one and take some home to use in your own cooking or share with your family and friends.
3 wishes at the waterfall of Kiyomizu Temple
One of the most iconic views of Kyoto is of the tall wooden veranda of Kiyomizu Temple, located on the eastern edge of Kyoto city. Whether it is with the green maple leaves of summer, the pink cherry blossoms of spring, the vibrant red foliage of autumn or the bare branches of winter, the foreground of this UNESCO World Heritage Site is spectacular in every season. Named after the clean water that runs through the grounds of Kiyomizu-dera (清水寺) translates directly to mean ‘pure water temple’. This buddhist temple which was founded at the site in 778AD and is now recognised by locals and visitors as one of the most impressive locations in all of Kyoto. The main structure featuring the iconic veranda was established in 1633 and masterfully, does not contain a single nail in its construction. It is difficult to not be impressed by the building once you consider construction of this building, given the tools and techniques available in that era.
At Kiyomizu Temple, not only can you enjoy the gardens, the architecture and the history of the temple and it’s surrounds, you can also follow the path of those before you and make a wish on the grounds at this sacred site. In years gone by, pilgrims would make a wish before leaping off the veranda. If they survived the 13 metre drop, their wish was said to be granted. Records show that 234 leaps of faith were attempted, with around 85% of those having their wishes granted.
The practice of making wishes at Kiyomizu is a little different to how it was done in years gone by with visitors nowadays making their wish by drinking from the three streams that originate from the Otowa Waterfall. Drinking the water from each stream is said to have a different effect. The three wishes available (from left to right) are for wisdom, longevity and love. If you drink from all three of the streams, it is considered greedy and none of your wishes will be granted, while drinking from just one is considered to be the safest bet for your wish being realised. Additionally, if you take your drink of the water from the ladle in one gulp, 100% of the wish will be granted. If you drink from the ladle with two gulps, only 50% of your wish will be granted while 3 gulps and only 33% will come true, and so on. Whether you believe in the wish granting powers of the streams ok Kiyomizu Temple, the story behind the practice adds an interesting point to consider when visiting and have you decide which of the three wishes you would like to have granted most.
Getting to Kiyomizu Temple is easy from central Kyoto and the entrance fee is only 300yen. The city buses 100 or 206, run near Kiyomizu Temple and you can enjoy the walk to the entrance along streets lined with wooden houses that have been converted into gift shops, pottery stores and restaurants and cafes selling local delicacies. The walk on the approach to the temple is reason to visit the area enough, particularly as the sun goes down and the lights of the city come on. The glow of the golden street lamps create an atmosphere usually only seen in times gone by and make for a memorable experience to end your day.
Greet deers in Nara
A popular activity for people visiting Kyoto is to take a day trip to the nearby ancient former capital city of Nara. The natural beauty and smaller crowds in Nara offer a peaceful opportunity to stroll around this city and view several ancient shrines and temples at your own pace. There is a handy tourist bus that runs loops around the city so getting around is no trouble at all. Or why not hire a bike and explore the various sights on two wheels? Nara is
easily accessible from Kyoto on either the JR or Kintetsu lines and it takes around 40 minutes to each the centre of the local attractions.
Upon leaving either JR or Kintetsu station, you will soon find yourself greeted by some of Nara’s most famous and friendly locals- the wild deer that roam freely around the streets and the central Nara Park! While it may be strange at first to see wild deer walking along the footpath or crossing the road, the deer in Nara provide a unique opportunity to get up close with these creatures. Whether you want to sit back and watch the people interacting with the deer, or purchase some crackers from the local vendors (¥100) and try hand feeding the deer yourself, walking the streets side by side with deer in Nara is a unique experience.
The main place to see deer in Nara is throughout Nara park which you will certainly cross if you are visiting any other attraction in town. Nara Park which was established in the year 1300 and is one of the oldest in Japan, is a sprawling park featuring many lakes and walking paths that links many of the sights in this city. Deer are viewable just about everywhere in the park but they do sometimes venture away from the main areas and can be seen in the middle of intersections or down residential streets. Most of the deer are friendly and have had enough interaction with humans that they will not cause any harm. Be wary though if you have crackers in your hand or pocket, the deer will know, and will begin to follow you! If you want a photo of a more placid deer, it is probably best not to feed them until after you have got your picture. As soon as the deer smells your crackers, they will most likely not leave you alone until they have been fed!
Another charming quirk of the deer is that they tend to bow to encourage visitors to give them a cracker or to say ’thank you’ once they have been fed. Is this the deer being particularly polite or is this just the normal habit for them?
If you are visiting Nara in the first half of August, make it your plan to check out the Nara Tokae lantern festival which runs for ten days during summer. The festival features 20,000 lanterns laid out across Nara Park which are lit one by one by local volunteers as the sun sets each evening. The result is fields of soft glowing candlelight across Nara Park in the foreground and the silhouettes of Nara’s ancient buildings in the background. This is certainly one of the more peaceful summer festivals in Japan and can be enjoyed by people of all ages. The deer don’t seem to stick around for the lantern festival after the sun sets with most of them returning home to their beds, but it is a good opportunity to spend the afternoon exploring Nara and then enjoying a lovely local festival in the evening.
If you are coming to Nara purely with the intention of visiting one of the ancient sights you are bound to cross paths with one of the friendly local deer so make sure that you take some time to sit, relax and enjoy how the different deer respond with inquisition or indifference to the human visitors.
The beauty of Japanese pottery ranges from hand formed cups and bowls to highly glazed and painted dishes and vases. There is something on the spectrum of Japanese pottery that will appeal to most tastes, and budgets.
The particular style of pottery that comes out of Kyoto is known as ‘Kyo-yaki’ and has been practiced by the locals for hundreds of years, particularly in the east of the city near Kiyomizu Temple in the Gojozaka district. The first kiln to be built in Kyoto was over 1,200 years ago by a monk for Seikan Temple. There are several pottery stores and studios that exist in Kyoto today where you can either pick up a locally made souvenir to take home, or give making your own piece a go. Pottery making was refined in Kyoto by local craftsmen and also those with skills in pottery from China and Korea who traveled to Kyoto at the time. As Kyoto was the capital city, and home to the Emperor and other nobility for hundreds of years, it was the centre of arts, craft and culture in Japan. The pieces of Kyo-yaki originally produced were used in tea ceremony for the aristocracy. Eventually, the beauty and craftsmanship of the Kyo-yaki was able to be widely appreciated by the rest of society in Japan.
The tradition of pottery making and trade continues still in this area today and is celebrated annually with the Gojozaka Pottery Festival. Each year between August 7-10 local ceramists and vendors line the streets around Kiyomizu Temple and sell there crafts. Visiting the district at this time of year is a great way to view a large range of pottery available for purchase in a festival like atmosphere. It is also a great opportunity to pick up a bargain, with many traders open to negotiation on price in the final days of the festival.
Taking a class when traveling in a new country is one of the best ways to experience a part of the culture in a fun and hands on way. Luckily there are many choices for such experiences in Kyoto where you can try your hand at making some of your very own Kyo-yaki. In many of the classes on offer in Kyoto you will get experience at using local clay for make a few pieces of pottery which are then glazed and fired. While you will not immediately be able to take your pottery home, your hard work will be sent home to you in a few weeks once the pottery has completely set and dried.
Dinner at Sodoh Higashiyama
Enjoy night light-up at Kodaiji
When people come to Kyoto, they usually only have a few days and are keen to tick off a visit the more well known and lavish historical sites. Whilst you will not go home dissatisfied after visiting the big name attractions, it is definitely worthwhile visiting some of the lesser known temples located only a short distance to the more well recognised sightseeing spots. Located in the picturesque mountains on the eastern side of Kyoto, or the Higashiyama district, is Kodaiji Temple. The temple was established in 1605 by a woman named Kita-no-Mandokoro who wanted to honour the life of her husband, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who had died. Today both are enshrined at the temple and rest at the mausoleum on site. Like many early wooden structures in Kyoto, fire has taken its toll on this temple too, but thankfully many of the original buildings have survived and remain in an excellent condition. The surviving structures feature ornate decoration and wide verandas from which you can view the surrounding gardens. There is a peaceful raked stone garden to one side and a equally beautiful landscaped garden to the other featuring carefully placed trees, rocks and mounds.
Whilst absolutely beautiful during daylight hours, if your trip happens to coincide with one of the scheduled night openings of Kodaiji, it is well worth taking the opportunity to view a temple at night. Kodaiji is one of the few places where you can do this at different times of the year. During Spring, Summer and Autumn, the temple and grounds are illuminated to accentuate architecture and the foliage of of the surrounding gardens. The night openings mean that special entry to the temple is permitted from sunset until 9:30pm. The spring season follows the blooming of the cherry blossoms from mid March to early May. In summer the temple is open at night from August 1 to August 18, while in Autumn you can enjoy the rich colours of the autumn leaves from late October to early December.
Accessing Kodaiji Temple is easy. It is located halfway between Yasaka Shrine and Kiyomizu Temple. Entry to the temple grounds, day or night, is 600yen. The area is best accessed by the city bus 100 or 206 from Kyoto Station and getting off at bus stop Higashiyama Yasui. From here, Kodaiji is only a 5 or 10 minute walk.
Counting 15 stones at Ryoanji
One of the best places in Kyoto to enjoy a Japanese zen rock garden is in the grounds of Ryoanji Temple, located on the northern side of Kyoto. The rock garden here is one of the most famous in Japan. Originally built as the home of a local aristocrat, it was converted to a zen temple in 1450. The date of the garden is unknown, as is information regarding who is responsible for the design. Part of this leads to the mystery surrounding the meaning to be derived by the design by those who are viewing it.
The garden is rectangular and is surrounded on 3 sides by stone walls with the central area filled with small white peoples and 15 larger moss covered rocks placed around the space. The exact meaning behind the placement of the rocks in the garden is not known, but it has been speculated by some that it is mountains peaking through the clouds, islands standing up in the sea or a tiger carrying her cubs across a pond. These images are easier to understand but it has also been suggested by others there are more abstract meanings to the design. Ultimately, because we do not know what the designer had in mind by the placement of the rocks, it is up to each person to find and determine their own thoughts on the garden and what it represents to them.
Due to the popularity of the garden at Ryoanji Temple, it is best to visit the grounds earlier in the morning or late in the afternoon and to allow yourself enough time to sit on the veranda overlooking the garden and contemplate the design and meaning for yourself. One thing that you will notice when viewing the garden is that despite there being 15 rocks in the design, you will only ever be able to count 14 from any one location. As you move around the viewing area, there is always at least one rock which disappears out of view. What is the meaning behind this? Is it intentional on part of the designer or a coincidence? Again because we do now know who is behind the design or what their concept was, it is up to you to fill in those blanks and determine the story for yourself. Perhaps only after achieving enlightenment will the 15th rock be revealed.
Getting to Ryoanji Temple is easy by bus with access available by buses 12 or 59. The admission fee is 500 yen and allows you to enter the shrine where the rock garden is located, but also enables you to enjoy the surrounding buildings and large park like gardens.
Takashimaya food floor B1
If you are caught for something to do on a rainy day in Kyoto, a visit to the basement floor of the prominent Takashimaya department store located in the central city of Kyoto is a great way to check out the range of high quality ingredients available for locals and visitors alike. Like most large department stores in Japan, the basement level at Takashimaya Kyoto is home to is fresh food area. Here you will find every possible Japanese ingredient you can imagine, along with a great selection of international groceries, fresh breads, pre prepared meals, condiments, sweets and alcohol.
You can explore the food hall at your own pace and examine the large array of fresh seafood and meats on offer. Get up close and inspect the marbled fat on the Japanese wagyu beef, watch the fish mongers slicing whole fish into pieces of sashimi ready for you to buy and eat at home, or, take some time walk through the fresh produce section and enjoy the perfectly arranged fruit and vegetables that all appear without a single blemish. The quality of ingredients on offer here is impeccable and it is a magnificent way to see the best of the best seasonal produce available in Japan at the time of your visit. While some items may seem a touch pricey compared to your home country, the taste and quality of the fresh fruit and vegetables is second to none.
Also on offer in the food floor are a seemingly endless range of Japanese pickles. Most stores offer samples of each of their products to potential customers, so be sure to take up their offer and try out some of the locally made pickled fruits or vegetables. Additionally, it is worth checking out the large array of pre prepared meals and dishes that you can buy ready to take away to enjoy. There will certainly be something here that will appeal to you, so it is highly recommended to stop by here and pick something up for breakfast or lunch before you head out sightseeing for the day.
Finally, no visit to the food area of any Japanese department store would be complete without admiring the immaculately presented sweets. From boxed Japanese sweets which can be purchased and enjoyed yourself or given as a gift, there is also a huge selection of fresh, hand made cakes and desserts which you can indulge on. To experience the highs of Japanese customer service, to view the amazing array of ingredients on offer and certainly to find a treat for yourself in Kyoto, a visit to the Takashimaya food floor is not just an activity for a rainy day, but a worthwhile experience itself.
Finding Takashimaya Kyoto is easy as it is located in the busy central shopping area on the corner of Shijo and Kawaramachi.
Go to Kitano Tenmangu market on 25th of the month
If you are interested in seeking out a bargain, make sure that you head down to Kitano Tenmangu Market. Operating only on the 25th of each month is a large market which is held in the grounds of the ancient Kitano Tenmangu Shrine and the surrounding streets. On offer is a large array of goods from up to 1000 stallholders. You can find anything from clothing, toys, tools, antiques, ceramics, fabric, plants and other traditional Japanese goods. Be sure to get to the markets early on the 25th as the market is very popular and the best items will sell out early. If you are looking for a gift or souvenir, or want to eat some local street food from a vendor, the market at Kitano Tenmangu Shrine is the perfect place to visit.
Stallholders arrive very early in the market and beginning laying out the goods and setting up their stalls for the days trade. The market opens from 6am but things are not fully up and running until around 9am as this is the time that most stallholders have unpacked all of their goods and fired up their takoyaki grills for the day. Getting to the market is easy by taking city bus 50 from Kyoto station which stops out the front of the shrine. You can’t miss the market as the stalls spill out on to the surrounding streets. Parking, both bicycle and car parking, is limited, so public transport is likely your best bet for getting there.
The market also is a great place to pick up some fresh fruit and vegetables or simply just walk around, browsing the goods and soaking up the festival like atmosphere. There are some local carnival games that kids and adults can play for a prize so, it is a fascinating place for both adults and kids to enjoy. Whether you are visiting the market with a particular purchase in mind, or a visiting just to enjoy the vibrant market atmosphere, you will not be disappointed by the range of goods available at prices lower than elsewhere in the city.
On the other 29 days of the month that the market is not operating at Kitano Tenmangu Shrine, you will see vast numbers of students rubbing the noses the stone cows at the front of the shrine. The reason for this? The shrine is known as the home of ‘the god of academics’ who is said to boost exam results. So, every year at exam time, crowds at the shrine swell with students hoping to gain good fortune and increased results on their tests.
Toji Temple market on 21st of the month
Toji Temple, which translates directly to East Temple and is recognised as one of Kyoto’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites, was originally one of two (east and west) temples to guard Kyoto’s southern approach when it became the capital of Japan. Inside the grounds of the temple are several buildings which have been reconstructed after the original buildings were destroyed by fire in 1486. The 5 story pagoda inside the grounds of Toji dates back to the year 826 and is a prominent feature of Kyoto’s low rise skyline from many points in the city.
The area surrounding the Temple, is home to a large market on the 21st day of each month throughout the year. On sale at the market, there are many new and second hand goods. From clothes, kimono, tools, pottery, household goods, plants and antiques, there will be a high chance that you will find a unique souvenir that probably won’t pop up in a normal retail store. The market is specifically good for antiques and items that you can only find in Japan. Whilst the range available can depend on vendor and the day, it is quite possible to find tools for calligraphy, tea sets, paper fans and also woodblock prints or scrolls featuring calligraphy or landscape paintings. Depending on your want and budget, there is certainly a vast array of items to browse or buy. The added bonus of attending this lively market is to interact and walk among locals who are out to source a bargain as well. Browsing the endless amount of interesting goods on display is an enjoyable way to spend a few hours enjoying the outdoor atmosphere in Kyoto. The market is open from very early morning to about 4:30pm as the vendors begin to pack up their goods.
Additionally, if you are in the market solely for antique goods, a smaller market is run at Toji on the first Sunday of each month. The quality and price of goods can be variable but, if you know what you are looking for or a skilled in identifying valuable pieces, you may be able to pick up a bargain here too.
Access to Toji Temple, whether it be for the market or just to visit the temple grounds, is very easy as it is located only a 15 minute walk southwest of JR Kyoto Station. If you would prefer to take a train, you can take the Kintetsu line from Kintetsu Kyoto Station one stop to Toji station. The temple grounds are then located only a 5 minute walk from here. You do not need to pay to enter the market, as it is located outside of the paid area. If you do wish to enter and view the ancient buildings here, it will cost 500 yen.